Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sunday Reading: The Epistle to Diognetus

This week, and for the month of August, at least, I want to continue reading through some of the very early writings of the Christian church. I am focusing on the Pre-Nicene Church Fathers; that is Christian writings before the 300’s AD. Most of these writings can easily be found for free on the internet with a Google search. You can find the Epistle to Diognetus here. I am using the Logos version of The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, by Michael William Holmes. There is a post on my Facebook page which links here and where we can discuss this post.

We have looked at a teaching manual, The Didache, and a martyrdom story, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, the last two weeks. The Epistle to Diognetus is a Christian Apology written sometime between 150-200. An Apology was written to those outside the church to defend the Christian faith and encourage those outside the faith to believe, as is the goal of modern apologetics. However, the early approach to apologetics was much different than the prominent approaches today. The emphasis of the author (who is unknown) is on the superior nature of the revelation of God through Christ and the exemplary lives of Christians, especially compared to the surrounding culture and other religions. It is possible that Diognetus was a tutor of Marcus Aurelius, but it is doubtful that he would have actually received and read the letter.

The author begins with an exhortation to hear this apology with an open mind and then discusses the weaknesses of paganism and Judaism. He says that paganism merely creates its own inferior gods from the human mind and in the end they are powerless. He criticizes the Jews for being superstitious and legalistic.

These are the things you call gods; you serve them, you worship them, and in the end you become like them. 537

For he who made the heaven and the earth and all that is in them, and provides us all with what we need, cannot himself need any of the things that he himself provides to those who imagine that they are giving to him. 539

The author describes as “not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom.,” (541 but as

What the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body; likewise Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world. The soul, which is invisible, is confined in the body, which is visible; in the same way, Christians are recognized as being in the world, and yet their religion remains invisible. 541–543

The author points out that it is the behavior and hope of Christians that distinguishes them from the world, not anything outward. Secondly, he points to Christianity as a superior revelation of God. Jesus is seen as fully God, sent by the Father to the world as a man.

(God the Father) sent him in gentleness and meekness, as a king might send his son who is a king; he sent him as God; he sent him as a man to men. When he sent him, he did so as one who saves by persuasion, not compulsion, for compulsion is no attribute of God. 545

His conclusion and application is that we must “acquire full knowledge of the Father” through faith that  “he sent his one and only Son, to them he promised the kingdom in heaven, which he will give to those who have loved him.” (549) Then one will be transformed into “an imitator of God” who will find happiness even in persecution.

For happiness is not a matter of lording it over one’s neighbors, or desiring to have more than weaker men, or possessing wealth and using force against one’s inferiors. No one is able to imitate God in these matters; on the contrary, these things are alien to his greatness. But whoever takes upon himself his neighbor’s burden, whoever wishes to benefit another who is worse off in something in which he himself is better off, whoever provides to those in need things that he has received from God, and thus becomes a god to those who receive them, this one is an imitator of God. 549

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